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Detroit Lions training camp battle: Who will fill the all-important WR4 role?

The starters appear locked in, but the battle amongst the reserves is wide open.

Syndication: Detroit Free Press Kirthmon F. Dozier via Imagn Content Services, LLC

With every Detroit Lions training camp battle article, we get one step closer to that wonderful time in late July, early August. This is the third in a series of articles at Pride of Detroit that will focus on training camp battles. If you missed any of the previous articles, make sure you check out:

Setting the table at wide receiver

Of the seven wide receivers who caught a pass for the Lions in 2020, six have departed and only Quintez Cephus remains. The team also returns Geronimo Allison, who opted out last season, as well as Victor Bolden and Tom Kennedy, who spent last season on the practice squad.

To fill the gaps and round out the group, the team signed Tyrell Williams, Breshad Perriman, Kalif Raymond, and Damion Ratley to one-year contracts in free agency. Additionally, they drafted Amon-Ra St. Brown in the fourth round and added two undrafted free agents, Sage Surratt and Javon McKinley, after the draft. Finally, the team signed Chad Hansen as their ninth receiver after UDFA Jonathan Adams Jr. was released post-minicamp.

This is a textbook overhaul of a position group and is likely at least one more year away from being completed.

Roster construction

Throughout this series, we have been exploring the initial 53-man rosters of the Los Angeles Rams (GM Brad Holmes), New Orleans Saints (coach Dan Campbell), and Los Angeles Chargers (offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn) to get a historical look at the teams who have influenced key figures in the Lions 2021 decision-making process.

While we have seen some variance in the number of players kept at quarterback and running back, all three teams kept six wide receivers on their initial 53-man rosters. That’s a pretty strong indicator that the Lions will follow suit with this year's squad.

Where things get interesting is when you examine how the team utilized those six players throughout the season.

Both L.A. teams focused on their top-four receivers (all had at least 20 receptions) but the rest of their options were afterthoughts. The Rams did not complete a reception to another receiver outside their top four, while the Chargers completed just seven passes to their fifth rostered receiver, while the sixth had zero catches.

The Saints used more variety at the position with their top five all registering at least 20 receptions, while their sixth rostered receiver spot saw a revolving door of players. In all, they used five players in that sixth spot and none had more than four receptions.

Therefore, it’s probably safe to say the Lions will roster six receivers, but only the top four or five will likely be in the mix on a weekly basis.

Projected starters

Based on comments from the coaching staff during the offseason, and the team’s on-field approach during OTAs and minicamp, the Lions are clearly expecting three players to earn starting roles: Williams and Perriman on the outside, with rookie St. Brown in the slot.

Nothing is set in stone at this stage, but the Lions opened every scrimmage series with QB Jared Goff and these three on the field giving a strong indication this is the preferred grouping.

Who is WR4?

After the starting three, things are very wide open among the reserves, and with the value the coaches previous teams placed on WR4, this figures to be an important battle.

So who is in the mix?

Based on OTAs and minicamp, Cephus is very much in the conversation and may be the leading candidate. His biggest challengers figure to be Ratley, Allison, Raymond, and Bolden. We haven’t seen what Hansen can do yet, Kennedy was injured most of the spring, while UDFA’s Surratt and McKinley haven’t stood out enough to warrant consideration at this time.

Ratley has shown some promise and the ability to learn on the fly. He has 31 games of NFL experience and alternated between the WR3 or WR4 for the Cleveland Browns during his first two years in the league.

Allison is the most experienced receiver among the reserves with 46 games played, including 14 starts in Green Bay. He is well versed in his route tree and can line up on the outside and in the slot. He is stylistically close to Cephus, so if the coaches have a type, and Cephus stumbles, Allison could jump in the mix quickly.

Raymond came into his own the last two years in Tennessee and saw 15 of his 35 games played come in 2020. He’s a shifty slot option who is also the presumed leader in the clubhouse for at least one of the returner roles.

Bolden is Raymond’s biggest challenger for a spot as he sports a similar skill set: quick in the slot and as a returner. The safe money is that either Raymond or Bolden make the roster, but will either be able to challenge for the coveted WR4 role?

For now, Cephus should enter camp as the leading candidate for the WR4 spot, though there are some concerns with him holding onto the role. As I pointed out in Cephus’ rookie snap count review, “Cephus uses his crisp route running, body positioning, and strong hands to secure catches, but if Goff doesn’t see him as open, it’s fair to speculate if he will even target the young receiver.”

Rounding out the reserves

With Cephus entering camp in the driver's seat for WR4, the final two roster spots could come down to Ratley vs. Allison, and Raymond vs. Bolden.

Because Raymond and Bolden are the top two candidates for the return job as well, it’s fair to say the winner will own a spot on the roster as either WR5 or WR6. It would be a bit surprising to see both make the team but you can’t rule it out either. Bolden has been brimming with potential on offense, and Raymond has looked the better return man, but they are so stylistically similar they would both have to blow the coaches out of the water.

Ratley vs. Allison could come down to the wire. Ratley is another speedy (4.39 second 40-yard-dash) receiver who can separate during his routes but is a bit redundant to the starters on the outside. Allison is slower (4.56) and more position versatile but can he separate consistently? He is also redundant to Cephus.

While I was quick to dismiss Hansen, Kennedy, Surratt, and McKinley in the WR4 section, they should very much be back in the mix here. If Ratley or Allison falter, the opportunity could be there for one of them to step up into a WR6 role.

Erik’s Projection

A lot can change in camp but entering the pre-fall spectacle, this is my projected depth chart at this time:

  • Starters: Williams, Perriman, and St. Brown (slot)
  • Reserves: Cephus, Ratley, and Raymond (slot)

I feel fairly confident with the top four. Cephus really was that much better in the spring and I’m giving a slight edge to the Ratley and Raymond because they can separate. That being said, I also wouldn’t be surprised to see several receivers added to the practice squad and used in a rotation at the WR6 spot throughout the season, similar to what the Saints did last season.

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